Thursday, October 2, 2008

Why Ethnography Matters

I just finished watching the Palin-Biden debate, and I understand more than ever what social class means in America. Prior to the debate, I was reading the most current issue of The New Yorker, a magazine clearly aimed at the well educated urbanite. In a piece early on about Obama campaigning in Appalachian Virginia, the writer used the word "Nascar."

Sorry, wrong answer.

It's NASCAR, all caps, an acronym standing for the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing. You don't get to live in America any more and not know how to spell NASCAR.

And then the debate came on, and Palin spoke the following pronunciations:

"eye-RACK" for Iraq
"eye-RAN" for Iran
"Noo-kya-lar" for nuclear

You think those are errors? You think, after eight years of reporters calling Bush out for mispronouncing "nuclear," that Palin would make the same mistake?

I feel like a conspiracy theorist pointing this out, so let me start out with some bona fides: my dad dropped out of high school in 10th grade, worked as a factory machinist for his entire life, and I have a Ph.D. I'm what Alfred Lubrano calls a "straddler," a person with a foot in both worlds and at home in neither.

So here's my thinking. Palin very clearly pronounces those words as a signal to a certain population (small town, rural, working-class, not very well educated) that she understands them, that she's not one of those fancy-pants New Yorkers or Washington Insiders that have caused so much trouble over the past decades. Biden, in control of the facts, doesn't address the emotional connection being made. He throws out numbers, he throws out truths about the misdeeds of the administration, he helps us realize the scale of the problems we face. But none of those facts will go as far as being seen as "one of us," being seen as a hockey mom who "gets" the day-to-day problems faced by good old American families.

This election is about identity. Who do you feel more comfortable with? Do you want to have a beer with Sarah, or a dinner with Biden? And ethnographers, people who can live with others extensively and understand their values, are uniquely situated to understand identity issues and how they're expressed through things like spellings and pronunciations.

George Lakoff is right. Elections are not won on facts, but on frames. It doesn't matter that much of what Palin said tonight will be revealed tomorrow to be incorrect. What matters is that she comforts people who feel left behind, who feel powerless.


1 comment:

smunger said...

I really enjoy political advertisements, not even ironically. It's no secret that I am a fan of semiotics and I like to read into the projections which I see in very fleeting stills on the screen, usually as the politician says they "approved this message".

Biden and Obama are in the foreground while a rough yellow brick warehouse is in the background. The exact type of building you see in small and large towns in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. They are very quickly and subtly projecting an image of solidarity with the rust belt, as if to say "Look" (Obama's favorite qualifier) "we are in this with you".

Another ad I love is for Steve Austria who has his picture taken in front of a pile of coal as he talks about how he will bring fresh solutions to Washington.

ITS COAL! there is nothing fresh about it. But Austria is playing to counties south of Columbus (not quite coal country, but reliably pro-coal nevertheless).